Pizza to the North, Pizza to the West
There are a lot of great things I get to do in the service of this blog. And a lot of great people I get to meet. But my favorite thing year after year is participating as a judge in All Over Albany’s Tournament of Pizza.
This is my fourth consecutive year. The only judge who has a longer tenure is Albany Jane, who has been participating since the contest’s inception in 2008. However, in missing that first year, I also missed eating pizza outside in a park. These days AOA has been able to make sure that all tastings are conducted indoors, with chairs, napkins, water and everything.
What’s most exciting about this year is that we’ve gotten the old gang back to together. Jerry, who joined the judges last year, returns. But pizza savant Renee is sitting at the table this year again after her maternity leave. And Jersey boy Joe is back in full force representing the Garden State. They know good pizza in Jersey. Truth.
When pizza season hits, it hits fast and furious. Two brackets from the first round have already seen their results posted on AOA this week. And while the coverage on the site is fantastic and full of pictures, I like to provide a bit of color commentary. So how did the Saratoga Springs and Schenectady pizzas look at the Judges’ Table?
With the first two brackets complete, this could well be called the Tournament of Upsets.
Seriously. Last year in Saratoga Springs Mama Mia made it into the semi finals and lost in the onions, peppers and sausage round with a truly unappealing pizza. It was a real shame because the shop made a remarkably delicious plain cheese pie.
This year, however, the rounds have changed. Instead of going for plain cheese, the first round of 2012 jumps right into sausage. First, I need to say I’m thrilled that we’re doing sausage instead of pepperoni this year. Pepperoni is just nasty.
The quality of sausage can make or break a pizza. And Mama Mia’s sausage sank them in the semis last year. This year it eliminated the past bracket champ at the opening salvo.
Also new for this year is that the editors started sneaking in mass market chain pizza into the tournament. And even though the competition is blind, in that pizzas are just identified with a randomly assigned letter (A through D), Pizza Hut pizza is fairly distinctive. And that was also one of the sausage slices in Saratoga.
I have to say, the Pizza Hut pan pizza crust is pretty damn tasty for what it is. Crisp, oily and full of flavor, the crust is far and away the best part of that slice. Between the cheese and the sausage, I’d say the sausage was more disgusting, because that’s meat and meat shouldn’t be spongy. It did not feel like meat. But the cheese didn’t feel like cheese either. I took a little between my fingers and squeezed it together. It coalesced into paste. Not good.
That really left Pope’s and Amore to lead the pack. Between the two of them it was a pretty close race. But it wasn’t so much as they won as it was that the other two really tanked.
Which brings us to Schenectady.
The good new is that Pizza King has reopened. But given the uncertainty surrounding this venerable local institution, they were sidelined from the tournament this year. Returning champ 5th and 50 stumbled in the first round this year too.
I can’t say that I’m terribly beat up over the news. Recently I went into the shop and ate one of their slices on premise. It was fine. But frankly, I was surprised that this was the same shop we awarded the top prize to last year. Maybe they are going through a rough patch, but their whole pizza seemed underdone.
The big chain pizza in this bracket was Domino’s. I had no idea until it was revealed to me. Like Pizza Hut, the sausage is disgusting and tastes industrially produced. As does the crust, which just kind of dissolves into some gooey paste in the mouth. The best part, I felt, was the sauce which had an unusual kick. But at least it wasn’t nasty.
That left Nico’s and Mario’s to battle it out. I really really liked Nico’s. I’d been to this slice shop across the street from Proctor’s when Pizza King was closed on Sundays. But putting it side by side against other pizzas really helped me to appreciate exactly how good it is in comparison.
That Schenectady should have a place this good in close proximity to Pizza King makes me wonder why the city has come to be so blessed.
Keep your eyes peeled on AOA to see what went down in Troy and Albany. And don’t forget about AOA’s farm to table dinner coming up at Creo either. It sounds amazing. Then come back here and I’ll spill my guts.